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Sleep: A Developmental Skill


Encouraging your young human to sleep should never be used as a tool to meet the adult's need for some time alone away from the young human. Let me explain. If you are tired, then you rest and sleep. If you need a break, then find an adult familiar to your young human to care for him or her and take a break. Your young human should never be expected to go to sleep when they are not tired or when you are tired. Your responsibility as an adult is two-fold. You are responsible to offer them an opportunity to rest their bodies and sleep when you see cues that they are getting tired. You are also responsible to talk about rest and sleep in a positive manner. For example, you may say, "You are tired. I am going to place you in your crib soon, so you can rest and be ready to play again".

Sleep is a developmental skill. Similarly, to any other skill, it takes time and practice in a supportive environment to learn how to rest, eventually sleep and stay asleep. It is your responsibility as an adult to create this supportive environment and help the young human transition to rest when they show signs of being tired. The key is observing the young human's cues of being tired. For example, when I observe young humans in my care slowing down during play and/or being unable to coordinate their body and emotions, I start talking to them about being tired and moving to rest as the next phase in their daily routine.

When a young human is provided with a supportive environment to learn how to rest and eventually sleep when they are tired, they benefit in many ways. Sleep helps with:

1. Self-regulating your feelings and emotions.

2. Cleaning the brain of toxins.

3. Self-regulating your feelings and emotions.

4. Healing and repair of physical body.

5. Self-regulating your feelings and emotions.

6. Processing information and executing memory functions.

7. Self-regulating your feelings and emotions.

8. Building a stronger immune system.

9. Self-regulating your feelings and emotions.

Yes, I repeated this point four times to emphasize the importance on being able to learn to self-regulate. Based on my experience, being able to self-regulate your feelings and emotions lays the foundation for social-emotional well-being.

Wow! All these vital benefits from learning to rest, sleep and stay asleep. So, how does one create a supportive environment that helps develop healthy sleep skills?

Consider the following strategies when creating a supportive sleep environment for your young human:

1. A safe space for your young human to develop sleep skills:

An infant must be placed to sleep in an approved crib or porta-crib. The ONLY items inside the crib are a firm mattress, a tight-fitting mattress that is meant for that specific crib, and a tight-fitting sheet that is meant for that mattress. No mobiles needed as it distracts the child from focusing on resting. Think about it for a moment. Do you have a mobile above your bed where you sleep? No bumper pads, soft toys, blankets inside the crib as they are all potential suffocation and strangulation hazards (These items are great for marketing brochures and magazine covers but are unsafe and unnecessary for your infant). Room needs to be dark and free of sound caused by music players. Always place infant on his or her back to sleep. The infant will move into a preferred position of sleep on his or her own when they are ready and able.

When your young human is able to climb out of your crib (when crib at the lowest setting), then it is time to move them to a nap mat or bed. It is important that at this stage that the room is made safe. For example, blind cords need to be secured and out of reach of your young human. When they have the freedom to move around the room from their bed, then all items in that room needs to be made safe (unless you plan on sitting in the room and watching them all night long without any sleep). A parent once shared her strategy with me. She told me that she was planning to switch her young toddler to a toddler bed during her winter break when she can observe him sleep through the night. This way she does not need to be awake the next day for work and can gain valuable information as to what her son does at night now that he is sleeping in a toddler bed instead of a crib. I thought that this strategy was well thought out and meets the needs of both the young human and caregiver. The information gathered through her observations may help make the sleep room even more safe for her young toddler.

2. Avoid covering your young humans's head or any clothing item that enables overheating. We tend to overdress our young humans when we want to keep them warm and cozy. It is best you have them sleep in a onsie or a one piece that fits snugly to the the body. Loose clothing may wrap around face during movement and become a suffocation hazard.

3. Check on your sleeping young humans regularly. Observe closely for the rise and fall of their chest as it means they are breathing.

4. Please do not place your child in a swaddle that restricts independent movement. Swaddles are pieces of material that bind the arms and legs close to their bodies and restrict freedom of movement. Infants slept inside the womb without a swaddle that restricts independent movement. Also, do not offer them a pacifier to sleep. Infants self-soothed inside the womb without a pacifier. They often use their hands and arms to suck on inside the womb. An infant does not know about swaddles and pacifiers. We introduce them to infants once they are born because marketing of these products and/or archaic practices tells us to do so. Sleep is a developmental skill. This means that, similar to other skills, your infant will master how to control reflexes, self-soothe, rest, sleep and stay asleep over time without the help of contraptions such as swaddles and pacifiers. For example, when children are momentarily woken up by their startle reflexes (also known as moro reflexes), they learn to control that reflex over time and learn to organize their nervous system. The presence of the startle reflex (or moro reflex) is a sign of a healthy nervous system. Many consider this startle reflex an interruption to infant sleep as it momentarily wakes up the infant. Yet, having this reflex and learning to control without external control like a swaddle is crucial in the healthy development of the nervous system. This reflex usually is better controlled by infants over a period of three to six months. Trust that your infant will learn to control this reflex all on their own.

5. Always place your infant inside the crib when they are almost on their way to sleep. You can say, "I am placing you in your crib for you to rest. I will see you after your rest time." Your infant needs to know where he or she is when they do startle themselves awake. This enables them to know where they are when they are awoken and know that they are safe in their crib.

6. During the first twelve months an infant typically takes two naps during the day. After the first twelve months the two naps drops to one long nap during the day, usually after lunch. It is best practice to offer naps to young humans when they are tired regardless of the numbers mentioned above. An on-demand schedule based on their needs is needed as they may have not slept well the night before and/or are not feeling well. Lack of sleep causes irritability. Offer rest before young humans get overtired as it may lead to resistance to rest and sleep. So, base your decision to offer a nap on the observations you make of your young human.

Finally, set them up to be successful in learning how to rest, sleep and stay asleep from the beginning by reflecting on the information I have provided to you. Arrange your day around your young human's sleeping and eating routines as it will create a predictable schedule for all involved. This early investment on your part will pay off in the long term because your young human will have built a routine sleep schedule that enables you to also find time to relax, rest, sleep, stay asleep and pursue your own goals with renewed energy!

Additional Resources:

1. Book - Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

2. Website - Safe Sleep for Infants by Michigan Department of Health and Human Services


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